Convene On Site

Meeting in South Korea

Where warm hospitality infuses almost every aspect of daily and business life.

Business and leisure travelers go to South Korea for many reasons: shopping, beaches, intoxicating culture and historical sites, or some-times just to eat. During a press trip hosted by the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) in September, Convene did plenty of the last — and learned that in this country of contrasts, warm hospitality infuses almost every aspect of daily and business life, including events. Jutting into the Sea of Japan, South Korea is cut off from mainland Asia by its closed northern half, North Korea, meaning that everyone needs to travel in and out by air or sea. Most of our group flew into Incheon International Airport, 17 miles from Seoul and one of nine international airports in the country. After the 13-hour flight from New York City (11 hours from the West Coast), we landed only a few clock hours after boarding but on the following day. It was disorienting, but that melted upon meeting our guide, petite Seoul native Misuk “Mimi” Jo, who was consistently upbeat, funny, and intuitive during the week we spent with her.

After the 45-minute ride into downtown Seoul, Jo deposited us in the elegant lobby of the five-star Plaza Hotel (a Marriott Autograph Collection property with 410 rooms and suites). Upstairs in my corner room, the mechanized curtains drew back to reveal floor-to-ceiling views of Seoul Plaza, the park that surrounds futuristic Seoul City Hall.

SOUL FOR SEOUL

The next morning, I wandered nearby Namdaemun Market on my own, browsing and eating street food, then headed back to the Plaza Hotel for a tour. The views from the property’s 22nd-floor meeting space stretched even farther than those from my guest room, out over the mountains that ring Seoul. The Plaza’s seven muted meet-ing rooms are sprinkled throughout the hotel. According to International MICE Sales Manager Lina Cho, a 100-guest-room meeting is an ideal size for the property — although its newly renovated, 9,500-square-foot Grand Ballroom can accommodate up to 500 people for a banquet or 700 for a theater-style event.

Seoul may be home to 10 million people and all of the attendant bustle, but the city also has quiet charms that come from its narrow, hilly streets, historic buildings, and dramatic backdrops. We glimpsed some of these at our next stop, the 35th-floor restaurant Faro Grand, where we devoured a spread of “Korean-Chinese-Japanese” food (sushi, congee, and tempura) while serious business lunches unfolded nearby.

Afterward, our group was dropped off at Seoul’s preeminent historic site, Gyeongbokgung Palace, built in 1395 as the home of the Joseon dynasty. Smack in the center of the city, the palace is a quiet, sprawling complex of sun-bleached courtyards and ancient buildings guarded by stone hachi, or mythical monsters. As we peeked into the sleeping quarters of long-ago kings and queens, we learned that the palace isn’t available for special events — rather, it’s a cultural treat for groups visiting Seoul, especially if they catch the dramatic, thrice-daily changing of the guard, complete with banging drums and a colorful, costumed procession.

Less than a mile away, we climbed the hilly lanes of Samcheong-dong, an enchanting, leafy arts district of stone houses, tearooms, restaurants, and boutiques. We worked up an appetite — which our hosts sated that evening with a traditional Korean-barbecue meal featuring floppy cuts of beef broiled over hot coals in the middle of the table.

035-cnvm-dec16A VISIT WITH THE SILLA DYNASTY

The next morning, we headed to Seoul Station for a two-hour, high-speed Korean Train eXpress (KTX) ride to sultry Gyeongju, a coastal city in the southeast that is called an “open-air museum” for its wealth of UNESCO World Heritage sites. After a lunch of ssambap — a meal featuring fillings such as spicy pork that diners wrap in romaine and sesame leaves — we toured the Daereungwon Tomb Complex from the circa-seventh-century Silla dynasty, whose towering structures resemble giant, grass-covered camel humps rising from the earth.

Next our group spilled into the courtyard of the Gyeochon Village traditional school, where we donned bright traditional Korean costumes over our street clothes for some team-building exercises: a traditional tea ceremony and an archery competition, as well as pounding rice flour into jiggly, glutinous balls. As we sat on floor mats for the tea ceremony, I learned (despite the language barrier) that every hand movement matters; the elderly matron to my left slapped me gently each time I made the wrong move. Jo explained that the thousand-year-old ritual is intended to impart a sense of calm in the midst of frenetic daily life.

As in many European and Asian countries, South Korea’s MICE industry is serious about promoting its destinations based on the local history and expertise of each. During an evening tour of the 340,000-square-foot HICO (Hwabaek International Convention Center) in Gyeongju, we learned that cultural, historic, educational, and civic groups are particularly drawn to the venue. HICO’s modern contours and cutting-edge public art provide a counterpoint to the ancient sites in Gyeongju, while its sleek cafeteria serves as both a place for attendees to dine as well as a public gathering spot. The buffet features dozens of foods, from sushi and japchae (noodles) to pizza and soft-serve ice cream. Over dinner, our hosts emphasized how the Gyeongju Convention Bureau often helps groups add social programs, specialty tours, team-build-ing activities, and even temple stays to their visits in the “Crown City.”

By day two, I was learning that Koreans are definitely late-night people, perhaps fueled by the coffeehouses that cluster on almost every block (including Starbucks, which is common in South Korea). After dinner, when many cultural sites in America would likely be closed the grounds of the stunning Donggung Palace and Wolji Pond were still filled with peo-ple touring its Silla-dynasty buildings and park-like environs long after sunset.

ON THE ROAD TO BUSAN

After an epic buffet breakfast in the Hilton Gyeongju, a new property directly across from HICO (and one of 17 hotels within a two-kilometer radius of the center), we boarded a private bus for Busan, only a two-hour drive from Gyeongju but seemingly a world apart. First, though, we stopped off at yet another cultural site — Bulguksa Temple, one of Korea’s official national treasures, built in 528. The temple was destroyed during the Japanese invasion of the late-1500s, and its fortunes rose and fell for centuries until the 1970s, when it was completely restored. Despite its age, the temple is far from rarified — both worshippers and monks still actively use it, and chanting filtered through the trees as we wandered the complex. As our group left, we learned that temple stays are a common add-on for business travelers to South Korea, offering the chance to experience ancient traditions as well as seek tranquility. By the time we reached Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city, the sunny weather was turning stormy. Apparently, Typhoon Chaba was approaching the Korean peninsula. Would it reach us? Jo assured us that if we kept moving from city to city, we’d stay ahead of its path.

Korean hospitality runs deep, and is often expressed in the wealth of fresh, painstakingly prepared food bestowed on visitors. It always seems like it’s time for another meal — and plenty of business takes place over food. As soon as we arrived in Busan, we shed our shoes and took our seats at a sunken table inside Tawon, described to us as a “health-food” restaurant. However, health in Korea doesn’t necessarily mean low-calorie: Our multiple-course meal included smoked-duck salad, crab soup, fried shiitake mushrooms, seasoned jellyfish tentacles, and fiery kimchi.

That afternoon, our group attended the opening session of the Union of International Associations’ (UIA) Associations Round Table Asia Pacific 2016 at the coastal Paradise Hotel. In a ballroom overlooking the sea — at least, during clearer weather — a hundred or so association executives from around the world gathered for two days of discussion about the challenges they face. Opening speaker Cyril Ritchie, UIA’s vice president, delivered a passionate talk on the role that associations should play in realizing the sustainable-development goals of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda “to achieve the better world to which we all aspire.” 

After the relatively intimate Paradise Hotel ballroom, BEXCO — the Busan Exhibition & Convention Center — seemed behemoth. A soaring, nearly 1-million-square-foot venue with 50 meeting rooms and 16 exhibit halls, BEXCO often hosts multiple exhibitions and meetings, such as the FISITA 2016 World Automotive Congress, which was taking place during our visit. 

Later that night, a UIA reception at the Nurimaru APEC House on nearby Dongbaekseom Island acquainted us with yet another style of venue: a round, three-story glass building. APEC House’s stunning location, nestled among pine trees on a rocky shoreline, was the setting for the 17th APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Corporation) meeting in 2005. The round table where world leaders sat for that historic meeting is preserved inside the APEC Memo-rial Museum, as are the name cards of participants. Upstairs, APEC House can host receptions and events, such as the one we attended.

SEAFOOD BY THE SEA

The next day was stormy, but that didn’t stop us from exploring Busan’s many layers. The city may be the cosmopolitan capital of South Korea’s flourishing film and television industries, but it once was home to thousands of refugees during the Korean War. Many of those refugees lived in a district called Gamcheon, a hodgepodge of tiny pastel cottages and winding alleys built into a hillside. Today, some of those cottages have been converted into artists’ studios and cafés, and tourists can wander the Gamcheon Cultural Village to experience history and public art. Along the harbor front in downtown Busan, the lively Jalgachi Fish Market is packed with almost every kind of live sea creature you can think of, from mackerel to sea squirt. On the second floor, no-nonsense women will fillet the fish you purchased downstairs into sashimi, which you can eat while seated cross-legged at low tables.

By the early afternoon, we were once again on the move — this time to Yeosu, a picturesque port city about a 90-min-ute drive south of Busan. Seafood rules there, too, as we found out during two meals. The first was an elegant, multi-course fish feast inside a special-event room at Maddie Yu, where the seafood came in waves and was presented creatively inside shells or atop seaweed. The next day, at the comparatively spar-tan Han-il Gwan, broiled stingray and roasted abalone were among the dozen or so delicious dishes served.

While quaint Yeosu is a resort and retirement destination for South Koreans — it has several beaches and parks, as well as a cable-car ride that soars above the harbor — the city is also stretching its MICE wings, especially with meetings tied to marine science or fisheries. Inside the five-star, 311-room MVL (Most Valuable Life) Hotel, where we stayed, six ultra-modern meeting rooms offer stylish venues for small business meetings overlooking the waterfront.

A mile or so away, the Yeosu Marine Expo was built for the 8 million visitors to Expo 2012 Yeosu Korea. Now, it’s been transformed into the Yeosu EXPO Convention Center, a modern water-side venue that can host events for up to 3,000 people in its 13 meeting rooms and exhibit halls. Among the center’s unique features is a Digital Media Gallery topped by a dramatic ceiling screen that can broadcast electronic art and video. Yeosu EXPO also has its own cruise-ship terminal, and is con-nected to Yeosu Expo Station — where we hopped another KTX train back to Seoul, a two-hour journey.

GAHN-SA-HAM-MID-DA’

Back in Seoul, after yet another filling feast — this time of bulgogi at Jinsa-daek, a traditional Korean restaurant — the neon shopping district of Myeong-dong seemed to be just waking up, filling with Millennials eating fried street food and heading to clubs. Rather than join them, I gazed down on the fray from my room inside the Lotte Hotel Seoul, another five-star property in the heart of the city.

When you visit South Korea for the first time, it takes a while to get the hang of saying thank you: gahn-sa-ham-mid-da. But by the end of the week, I’d used the phrase so often that it rolled off my tongue. Koreans shower visitors with such unrestrained warmth and patience — as well as food — that their hospitality stayed with me long after the flight back home. 

Corin Hirsch

Corin Hirsch is a writer who specializes in food and drink.